Chrissy Brett remembered as a tireless advocate for homeless people, Indigenous rights

·3 min read
Chrissy Brett speaks to CBC News in her role as Strathcona Park’s homeless camp liaison, in this 2020 file photo. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Chrissy Brett speaks to CBC News in her role as Strathcona Park’s homeless camp liaison, in this 2020 file photo. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

Housing, anti-poverty and Indigenous rights advocates in Vancouver and Victoria are mourning the recent death of Chrissy Brett.

Many met the Nuxalk activist sitting beside the sacred fire at one of the series of homeless encampments she helped set up in B.C.

Simon Fraser University education professor and tent city volunteer Patricia Nitkin first met Brett by the fireside during a bitter cold snap in Vancouver nearly three years ago, at the Oppenheimer Park tent city.

"Chrissy to me was the only superhero I ever met in my life," Nitkin said.

Brett, who died at age 47, was well known as a spokesperson and resident of tent city camps around Greater Victoria, as well as Vancouver's Oppenheimer, Crab and Strathcona parks.

"She was just immovable in the face of injustice," Nitkin said. "There's nothing she wouldn't do to protect you."

The tent cities Brett helped found proved to be a lightning rod everywhere they sprouted, quickly inspiring others across B.C.

Opponents said the camps were eyesores, brought disorder and prevented residents accessing local parks.

But for those living there, the camps offered a rare chance to establish a home where they wouldn't have to move their possessions every day, and somewhere to meet elders and community.

Establishing that sense of community, as well as notions of fairness and respect, was crucial for Brett, said Fiona York with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

"It was just a way of understanding and having conversation, bringing people together ... advocating for individuals a lot around reconciliation and against colonialism," said York, who worked alongside Brett for three years.

Jon Hernandez/CBC
Jon Hernandez/CBC

Encouraging others to lead

Claudette Abraham was among the hundreds who Brett helped find a reprieve from homelessness and offered a listening ear.

After Abraham lost her apartment, Brett told her she could stay in the Strathcona Park tent city. But there was a caveat.

"We would have certain rules to live by — being respectful to each other, picking up trash, camp rules," she said.

Abraham best remembers her late comrade for her insistence there be a sacred fire for prayers and community-building at the heart of every encampment.

She also recalls that Brett encouraged others to lead — for instance, asking Abraham to make bannock and stew for everyone at camp.

"She's like the blueprint of the way matriarchy is going to come about," she said.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

'Always been out to make the world a better place'

Brett's mother Barb Brett told CBC News she adopted Christine when she was less than five months old.

Raised in Dawson Creek, B.C., Brett "took to the water like a seal" as a baby and later excelled at competitive swimming, her mother said.

As a child she'd often bring home classmates she was concerned about.

"She's always been out to make the world a better place," Barb Brett said.

Brett had three sons and a daughter, her mother said. The family does not know the cause of her sudden death and is awaiting the coroner's report.

"I don't even know if she even knew how many people she was so important to," she said.

Brett was also passionate about children's rights, and organized a two-week-long protest outside the Victoria Law Courts in 2015 demanding Indigenous control over child welfare.

"Ultimately, if I can only do one thing, it would be to create a positive change for impoverished and Indigenous children and families," she wrote on Facebook in 2016.

For Abraham, losing such a friend and ally is painful, but she knows Brett's impact will never be forgotten.

"She's gone into the next world," Abraham said. "They needed a spiritual warrior like her present in that world.

"We all have our purposes here."

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